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What to do When Your Flight is Cancelled

Updated November 2018

I’m sitting at an adorable coffee shop in the San Francisco airport as I type this. I didn’t anticipate having time to blog today, but something happened that is giving me plenty of time and blog-worthy material… our flight was cancelled!

There we were, up above the world, flying for nearly six hours from Washington Dulles to San Francisco, reading and minding our own business. We landed pretty much on time, in the fog and rain, and planned to pick up a to-go lunch on our way to the next gate for our final flight to Burbank. We turned our phones back on, and–so exciting–we had many emails to check! But one such e-mail was less than delightful. While we flying along all relaxed and dandy, our flight to Burbank was “cancelled due to air traffic control conditions impacting our flight operations.” We later speculated it was due to Nancy Reagan’s funeral, which the airlines should have been aware of before the day of, but that’s another beef.

So, what do we do? Here’s the checklist:

1. Forget to Panic!

Seriously, if you travel much, you start to realize it happens a lot more often than you’d like to think, and there’s always another flight or another series of flights to get you where you need to be. In the worst-case scenario, you’ll have to wait 24 hours, but sometimes you get lucky and you can be put on an earlier flight, or even a non-stop flight allowing you to avoid an anticipated layover! I’ve yet to have to wait until the next day to fly out, but I have enjoyed the last two scenarios. The point being, it’ll all work out! Don’t sweat it, just forget to panic and continue on with this list.

Don’t be blue! You’ll be on your way in no time! It just might take a while. 
2. Call your Airline

It may seem obvious when you’re not in the moment, but it’s probably the most important thing to do. As a proactive measure, put the airline’s phone number in your phone, and have a hardcopy as well, just in case. If you’re traveling internationally, calling may not be an option. But if you have a situation like Steve and I did trying to get out of Quito, don’t be afraid to ask a nearby business (hotel, restaurant, etc.) if you can use their wi-fi and/or telephone to call the airline’s local office.

Another tip: If you know someone who’s loyal to the airline you’re taking, ask if they have a special number you can call. For instance, Steve and I are loyal to United, which is part of the Star Alliance. We have a special “1K” phone number to call when we need assistance, and we can get through to a representative without going through a bunch of automated options. The secret is… anyone can use that number. 😉

3. Go to Customer Service

Double your chances! In addition to calling (not instead of calling), also get yourself to that customer service desk. Don’t walk–run! Get there as quick as you can, especially if you were supposed to be on a large flight or if there are very few flights like yours per day. Talking to a live person can be very encouraging and helpful, but by all means, remember that they are just humans, and they are doing what they can. It may not seem like they’re working as fast as possible, but they will surely be faster when helping a pleasant person as opposed to a jerk. Don’t be the jerk. Be nice, and be part of the solution!

And be sure to STAY on the phone. Sometimes the customer service line doesn’t move, so you might actually get through a long hold or a bunch of automated systems before you get to the front of the customer service line.

Hate standing in line? Just pretend you’re waiting to ride the Jungle Cruise at Disneyland!
4. Find Your Own Options

If you’re not a frequent traveler or you’re flying on an unfamiliar airline, you’re sort of at the mercy of whoever’s on the other end of the phone or the other side of the counter. But if you do a little quick searching, you can find out what other airlines are partnered with yours (and thus what other airlines you could take), when the next flight is scheduled (so you can suggest that if you need to), and what other routes will get you to your destination (because sometimes you have to think out of the box!).

So, you’re on the phone with someone, you’re waiting in line to talk to someone, why would you need to do anything else? Well, because those people are just people. They have a computer system and special privileges to change your flight plans for you, so you need them, but more brain power is better than less. Steve and I have had to ask for specific routes and flights, suggest something other than what the representative can (or will) tell us, and even tell them a flight number a time or two. Sometimes they make mistakes, sometimes their system isn’t showing everything it could be, and sometimes they just don’t think of an option that we might think of on the spot. Do a little of your own dirty work, even while you’re on the phone or with a customer service representative.

To be fair, this comes from a girl who, just this morning, forgot to push her carry-ons through the security machine. And got loudly reprimanded by one of the TSA agents on duty. And got the dirtiest looks imaginable from others in the TSA Pre-Check line. We all make mistakes!

Finding our own path…
5. Find Your New Gate

You did it! You have your new flight! Now, immediately go find your new gate. It might be really far from where your old gate was or where you are right then. Be sure you know how to get there and when your new flight leaves! I once almost missed a flight to Istanbul because I thought I knew where my gate was… but in reality it was much farther than I anticipated! I made it with minutes to spare. Do not cut it close!

You’ll be on your new flight in no time!
6. Enjoy Your Downtime

If you have lots of time to fill (like Steve and I do in San Francisco today), make the most of it! If you’re far from home and have several hours to fill (four or more hours), go out and explore your layover city! The only true regret I have from my travels is not exploring Amsterdam during a nine hour layover traveling from Switzerland to DC.

Today, Steve and I had a leisurely brunch at an airport eatery, walked every corridor to which we had access, and now I’m chillin’ with my duck Mr. Peabody Pembroke and enjoying a latte and a cream puff while Steve gets more steps in. Oh, and I’m blogging, too.

Mr. Peabody Pembroke eats a snack!

What’s your craziest flight cancellation story?

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